Published May 31, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Take steps to become Firewise.”
By Barb Gorges
In the summer, when we smell smoke from the forest fires in Colorado and beyond, we might think we are safe here in Laramie County.
But several grassfires this winter and early spring should give us a heads up, whether we live within the city limits or “out in the county,” as people say around here.
It only takes an ignition source lightning, a burn pile, a cigarette ember), fuel (dry grass, resinous wood, anything flammable) and oxygen.
But there are things you can do with your house and landscape, especially if you live in what the firefighting community calls the wildland/urban interface, to reduce fuel, which can improve your chances of firefighters being able to defend your home.
Betsey Nickerson is the Laramie County coordinator for Firewise, a national program that works through the Wyoming State Forestry Division to help property owners, especially in forested areas, assess their fire risks and develop mitigation plans. Sometimes funding can be found to implement the plans.
The Firewise Communities program, in which a town or a group, like a homeowners association, works together, is most effective.
Bob Lick of Granite Springs Retreat, a development in the ponderosa forest 25 miles west of Cheyenne, attended one of Betsey’s talks about three years ago and realized his homeowners association needed to get onboard immediately.
This is the second year since it qualified as one of more than 1,000 Firewise communities nationwide. This Firewise committee educates neighbors and takes actions such as thinning pines along access roads and establishing one location where everyone can bring their tree prunings for safe burning.
On a rainy day in early May, as I visited Bob and his neighbors, it was hard to remember the approaching hot, dry and windy summer days ahead. Ironically, a wet spring means grasses will grow tall and lush. But when cured brown by mid-summer, they will provide perfect tinder.
The less flammable house
The Firewise website, http://firewise.org, has recommendations for the least flammable roof, wall, widow and vent materials.
Decks and fences attached to the house are considered part of the house. Bob and Marty Gill, another Granite Springs Retreat resident, have both used plastic lumber for their attached decks, which will melt in a fire, rather than burn.
Wooden fences need to be separated from the house with something that is not flammable, such as a metal gate or a brick pillar.
When there’s threat of fire, homeowners should remove straw welcome mats, patio cushions and other flammables.
The first 5 feet
The good news is that landscaping with rock is in fashion these days. Bob is in the middle of arranging a 5-foot-wide border of rock along the edge of his deck. Around the rest of the house is gravel, including his driveway, and more underneath the deck, to make sure nothing can grow, dry out and provide a rogue ember with tinder.
Barb and Milt Werner have built a terraced stone patio against one side of their log house that does double duty as a firebreak.
The three homes have hardly any foundation plantings. But with a beautiful natural setting, why bother?
Here in the city or out on the prairie, foundation plantings seem more aesthetically necessary.
Even though I live only 200 feet away from a fire hydrant, Betsey thinks I should remove the junipers that grow against my house. More than any of the other evergreens, junipers are about as flammable as a can of gasoline, she keeps reminding me.
Also consider the pine trees that lean over people’s homes, shedding needles on the roof and in the gutters. Talk about good tinder.
Deciduous plants are much less flammable than evergreens. The list of less flammable plants on Natrona County’s Firewise website is a roll call of native species found in mountain meadows. They are becoming more available through local nurseries.
A Firewise demonstration garden planned by Betsey and Laramie County Master Gardeners is being installed this summer at the Curt Gowdy State Park visitor center to show there are lots of aesthetically pleasing flowering plants that are fire resistant.
30 feet out
When firefighters refer to “defensible space” around a home, homeowners get a vision of moonscape. True, you wouldn’t want your propane tank here, or the cute shed with the wood shake shingles, or your wood pile.
Trees are fine, in small, isolated islands, not in a continuous mass like a windbreak. Short shrubs, mowed grass, and gravel paths between flower beds can make a charming, fire-resistant landscape.
Even pine trees can be acceptable if they aren’t too close together. One secret Bob learned is that you can remove one pine in a clump of three, for instance, to allow the other two to take up more water, making them more fire resistant.
Also, limbing a pine tree—removing the lower branches—keeps a ground fire from laddering. That is, using branches, fire can easily make its way up the tree to reach the crown. Here, the flames catch more air and wind, billow out and throw fire-brands at nearby roofs and trees.
The recommendation is to remove evergreen limbs up to 6 to 8 feet above ground level. However, the pine trees near Barb and Milt’s house are hardly 12 feet tall so they use the other rule: remove no more limbs than those in the first third of the tree’s height.
One unexpected benefit is that more grass grew under the trees, Barb said.
While her gardening is limited to half a dozen containers well-fenced to keep deer out, Barb does put a lot of effort into raking up pinecones and excess pine needles that could be fuel for a stray ember.
30-100 feet out
Those in neighborhoods with less than 100 feet between their house and property boundary realize the need to work with their neighbors.
Out on the prairie, after the ground-nesting birds have fledged in late June to early July and the taller grasses begin to turn brown, it may be time to mow this zone.
Homeowners in the forest may have grass to mow there also, as well as trees and shrubs to manage as in the 5-30-foot zone.
Once you’ve had your property assessed for wildfire risk, and you spent the next few years completing all the recommended mitigation, you still have to keep up with maintenance. Check for leaves and needles in gutters, debris under the deck, dead wood, vegetation growth, and clutter.
Just chant the Firewise mantra: “clean, lean and green.”
Short of moving downtown, following Firewise principles is the best insurance against the increasing risk of wildfires during hotter and drier summers, and even dry winters.
Would using Firewise make a difference in home insurance policies? Betsey said she hasn’t heard of anyone receiving a discount, though it might help prevent loss of insurance.
But it should make for more restful nights for the increasing numbers of homeowners who take fire preparedness into their own hands.
Betsey Nickerson, 637-4912, 421-8012 cell
University of Wyoming Extension, “Living with Wildlfire in Wyoming,” http://www.uwyo.edu/barnbackyard/_files/documents/resources/wildfire2013/wildfire_web.pdf
Firewise Natrona County, plant list, http://www.firewisewyoming.com/
Colorado State University Extension, Firewise Plant Materials, http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/natres/06305.html
National Fire Protection Association, Firewise Communities, http://firewise.org